Viking Expansion Northwards: Mediaeval Sources

Viking Expansion Northwards: Mediaeval Sources

By Tette Hofstra and Kees Samplonius

Arctic, Vol.48, No. 3 (1995)

Abstract: Evidence for Scandinavian activities in the northwestern part of the Barents Sea is scanty; according to the Annals, Svalbari was discovered in 1194, but the entry refers to Jan Mayen rather than present-day Svalbard/Spitsbergen. By contrast, the southern fringe of the Barents Sea was more than once crossed by Vikings on their way to Bjarmaland (Russia) in the White Sea area. As early as the end of the ninth century, an Old English source tells of a Norse expedition to that area and Old Norse sources indicate the existence of trade links back to the tenth century, possibly even earlier. The commodities traded and levied were tusks, precious furs and skins. The trade, also with the nearby Sami, was controlled by Norse chieftains living on the coast south of Tromsø, who competed for power with the kings of Norway. Both kings and chieftains were involved in the Bjarmaland expeditions, as can be seen from historical sources and from fiction. A final expedition took place in 1222. The trips to Bjarmaland did not lead to correct ideas about the geography of the Barents Sea area as a whole. Firm knowledge was limited, leaving room for superstition and learned speculations, such as a land-bridge to Greenland and a race of arctic giants, thought to live somewhere north of Bjarmaland. As to the Barents Sea proper, the sources reflect problems with sailing.

Introduction: The Vikings—that is the expanding Scandinavians from the end of the eighth century onwards—were renowned for the skill in sailing that they displayed in large parts of Europe. The Barents Sea area certainly was within the scope of some mediaeval Scandinavians, for Halogaland in northern Norway was settled by Norwegians, and Finnmark (Old Norse Finnmörk) seems to have been visited frequently by them . Sailing was a common way of travelling, and it appears that at least the southwestern shore of the Barents Sea was known to them.

This paper intends to give an impression of the way in which the Norsemen moved north and penetrated the arctic waters. First we discuss some of the written mediaeval sources that are related to Arctic Norway and the Barents Sea area, and look for some general pattern. Next we compare our findings with those of archaeological research, and look at the recent social anthropological approach. As we are primarily concerned with written sources, these two last disciplines are used only as auxiliaries. In a final section we look at the mediaeval speculation with respect to the area, such as the notion of a north-continent and the occurrence of fabulous creatures.

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